Director Dexter Fletcher’s new film is not a biopic of iconic musical genius Sir Elton John.
“Rocketman” captures all the fantasy and majesty of John’s enduring legacy in a unique and magical way, cranking up the tunes in a dream-hazed jukebox portrait that lives and breathes the man’s identity without worrying all too much about historical accuracy.
Theatricality and performance reign supreme in a film that unconventionally chronicles a shy artist’s ascent to mythical fame and fortune in spite of a relatively traditional rise-and-fall screenplay.
“Rocketman” stars Taron Egerton as an adult John reflecting on the decisions in his life that brought him to rehabilitation for every addiction under the sun from his beginnings as young child of divorce Reginald Dwight through cocaine and sex-fueled parties in his mansion to hitting rock bottom and a suicide attempt.
It’s clear throughout “Rocketman” that viewers are watching Egerton play a mythical approximation of John rather than the man himself. But by the 20-minute mark, Egerton’s dynamic performance overshadows this conceit and audiences forgive the historical inaccuracies and other liberties taken by the filmmakers to create a singular vision for John’s story.
This cinematic daydream of John is captivating regardless of the situation. “Rocketman” doesn’t shy away from the darker side of the mercurial singer’s active, rampant alcohol and drug use. The film is also particularly forthcoming on John’s sexuality and how remaining closeted publicly impacted and isolated him from the people around him.
What brings Egerton’s performance to the next level is a commitment to the young English actor singing all of John’s classic tunes himself rather than follow choreography and lip-sync to the original track.
This gives “Rocketman” a fresh, vibrant quality that can’t be faked as Fletcher reimagines songs in a new context that highlight and accentuate John’s emotional journey over the course of his career.
Though historically out of place, songs inform backstory in montage, complicate plot with nuance and enhance the mystique of John’s eccentricities.
There’s an interesting assortment of personalities constantly orbiting around John in the film with Jamie Bell perfectly balancing Egerton’s theatrics in a mellowed, yet soulful turn as John’s longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin. Bell and Egerton have terrific chemistry that powers their unconventional musical collaboration and provides the film’s most compelling character work.
Richard Madden is effective as John’s manager and lover John Reid, though his reliance on outright villainy can feel a tad mustache twirling at times.
The one casting misstep, however, is an awkwardly out of place Bryce Dallas Howard hiding behind a dark black wig and faltering British accent to play John’s mother Sheila. While not actively detrimental to the film, Howard’s stoic turn isn’t quite in sync with the actors around her and feels disjointed.
Fletcher, cinematographer George Richmond and costume designer Julian Day give “Rocketman” a daring, colorful and bold style that has viewers completely entranced by the spectacle.
It’s a film with texture and composition designed for iconic moments – barroom brawls, flamboyant concerts and drug-fueled dreams. Richmond and Fletcher paint musical sequences with an eye for visual storytelling that leave imagery seared in viewers’ minds long after leaving the theater.
Fletcher and company transform hits like “Crocodile Rock,” “Tiny Dancer” and the titular “Rocket Man” cinematically to the point that audiences begin hearing these songs in four dimensions. The highs of staging “Rocketman” the song at a pivotal point in the film are genuinely unique and intoxicating as viewers are whisked from moment to moment following John on a surreal, drug-infused ride.
There should be a place come awards season for “Rocketman,” though a backlash towards Oscar-winning Queen biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody” – a lesser film Fletcher helped clean up after director Bryan Singer was fired – may push this Elton John fantasy flick out of the running.
Egerton is clearly deserving of acclaim for his fantastical take on the singer, while the new song “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again” John penned with Taupin for the film and sings as a duet with Egerton over the closing credits could easily be an Oscar contender to get the musical icon on stage for a performance.
The film’s reimagining of John’s iconic discography doesn’t lend itself to audience sing-alongs, though the intoxicating nature of hearing classics like “Your Song,” “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” and “Bennie and the Jets” paired with masterful visuals make it eminently rewatchable and a must see on the big screen.
“Rocketman” is as much of a unicorn as the man it chronicles.